Allan Robertson fires Tom Morris
Tom Morris was born in St. Andrews, Scotland, in 1821. In his early teens, he became a champion street golfer, knocking a ball around the town's thoroughfares. Only the very wealthy could afford to play golf on a course.
In 1835 when Tom was fourteen, his family used a connection to apprentice him ("sell him") to the head pro at St. Andrews Links - Allan Robertson (below). They signed a contract for 9 years: four as an apprentice, and five as a journeyman. No upfront bonus or option year.
Tom's job was to work in Allan's golf ball workshop at St. Andrews. They produced a ball called a feathery, which had been the standard ball in golf since the 1600s. Strips of cowhide were cut into two figure eight pieces like those used in making a baseball, and stitched together. A top hat full of goose feathers was boiled down into a slimy substance, stuffed into the ball, and sewed shut. After drying for a couple of days, the feathers would expand and harden, and the ball would be painted with three coats of white paint. The name "Allan" would be stamped on the finished product, making it the swoosh of the day. Typically, a ballmaker made 3 balls a day. Allan's shop produced about 2,500 a year.
By 1850, Old Tom still worked for Allan. Over the years, Allan had taken Tom out to the course and taught him the game, likely to see if he had any talent that he could exploit. Tom became an accomplished player, and Allan and him formed an unbeatable team called "the Invincibles," winning virtually every betting match they played. Tom had also married Nancy Bayne and had a child, Tom Jr.
At this time, a new type of ball began showing up called the gutta percha. Made of rubber, it was cheaper and more durable, and a threat to Allan's ball business. While he couldn't prevent it being played on St. Andrews, he forbid any of his employees to use it.
One day while playing a friendly round with a member, Tom ran out of featheries. His playing partner gave him a gutta percha to finish his round. Allan somehow saw Tom playing the offensive ball, and fired Tom on the spot. After 15 years of employment, and dozens of winning matches where he kept almost all the winnings! Given his gamesmanship and fiery temperament over the years, it was not surprising what Allan did. This didn't less the blow.
Later that year, Tom Jr. died. He was only four years old. 1850 was a cruel, harsh year.
Tom wins the Open. Twice.
A kind St. Andrews member secured a greenskeeper job for Tom at Prestwick, a newly formed golf club on the other side of Scotland on its western shore. It was so new, it didn't yet have a course, just some land where people randomly hit balls. Tom and his wife Nancy moved there in early 1851.
Tom set up his own ball and club making shop, and set out to design the course. As Prestwick was one of the first courses to ever be deliberately designed, Tom picked up this valuable new skill on the job. He not only thought about the strategic elements of a hole and routing, but also developed innovative construction and maintenance methods.
Amazingly, Tom began to play again with Allan Robertson. Was he just a very forgiving man given his deep religious beliefs? Or was he shrewd enough to understand his chances of winning were best with Allan? Nancy could not have been very pleased, despite them beating all comers during the 1850s. There was considerable debate during this time who was the best player. Sure, Tom and Allan were a great pair, but which one was the best? Or was it someone else like Willie Park, whom they had many great matches? Tom and the Prestwick golfers proposed a new championship to decide this - the Open. It was first held at, naturally, Prestwick in 1860. Eight golfers participated. Willie won, and claimed the championship belt - the first award before the later Claret Jug.
While Willie winning was not a complete shock, it was a minor upset since he was so young. However, Tom restored order, and won the belt the next two years, and also again in 1864. As champion golfer, with three children (including another Tom Jr.), and with financial and critical success at Prestwick, Tom had made a very nice recovery from the calamities of 1850.
Lore moment: Tom returns to St. Andrews
Allan Robertson died in 1859. He still had not been replaced by 1864. So the St. Andrews members voted to lure Tom back from Prestwick to take his place with a salary of 50 pounds for his greenskeeper role, a home, plus all he could make from ball and club making and lessons. Some members were outraged - they had paid Allan nothing for the greenskeeper job. Perhaps Tom had become as skilled in negotiations as he had in his golf career. Or maybe this was the real reason he kept playing with Allan - to keep him top of mind with the St. Andrews members. Old Tom was not just the original golf course designer, but one of the first networkers of the modern age.
Tom and Nancy and family returned to St. Andrews in late 1864, and took up the post in early 1865. Leaving under a cloud of anxiety, doubts, and perhaps self pity, this return must have been particularly satisfying as he returned to old friends and extended family who knew he had been unjustly dismissed. But what deepened this feeling was he seemed to come back without the scarring emotional baggage of revenge and anger given his continued playing relationship with Allan Robertson. In fact, the key lesson may be challenges and tragedies often lead to new opportunities that would not open up without an unexpected change of direction. Ironically, Tom may never have developed the skills and reputation to secure this position without him being sadly sent on his way years before. And when you nobly accept unjust circumstances, life often will square the ledger later. Good things happen to good people.